Eric Flint: Boundary

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Eric Flint Boundary
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    Boundary
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Eric Flint


Boundary

Ryk E. Spoor


PART I: FOSSILS

Problematica, n: a term used in paleontology to refer to fossils that appear to be either of unknown taxonomic origin, or whose occurrence in the location they are found contradicts current beliefs of the field.

Eric Flint Ryk E. Spoor

Boundary

Chapter 1

"Dear God, I'm going to die," muttered Joe Buckley, as the SUV bounced from one rutted pothole to another.

"Oh, come on, Joe, I don't drive that badly."

The silence caused Helen Sutter to glance over at Joe. His face was pale under its tan, contrasting all the more with his dark hair. His habitually cheerful expression was currently replaced by that of a man who has discovered he has a terminal illness and just two weeks to live. "… Do I?"

"Eyes on road! On the road!!! UNGH!"

The "ungh" was from the SUV's particularly hard, bottoming-out-the-shocks landing following yet another acrobatic leap across the roadbed, in an attempt to leave the rough dirt track and strike out across the rocky terrain nearby.

Helen gave a restrained curse and hauled on the steering wheel. The SUV responded, skidding slightly, but heading back into the center of the dirt track leading to the Secord ranch. Holding the line with one hand, Helen brushed her blond hair out of her eyes; as usual it was escaping the ponytail it was supposedly tied into. Despite the fact that it was early in the season and only eleven in the morning, Helen could feel a thin film of sweat on her forehead.

Well, that's the life of a paleontologist, she thought ruefully. Pay all your grant money for the chance to break rocks, instead of getting sentenced to hard labor and doing it for free.

"What's wrong with my driving?"

"Nothing, nothing." Joe paused. "If you're in the Baja 500."

"Oh, all right, I'll slow down. But who cut down your testosterone ration? As I recall, the first year we came out here, you almost got yourself killed trying to offroad along an arroyo. Nearly lost us our dig, too. Then the second year, you-"

"Hey, all right, already. It's just that I want to survive this summer. It's my last year."

Helen smiled a bit sadly. "I know. We're going to miss you, Joe."

"I'll miss it, too. But… push comes to shove, this is ultimately just a hobby for me. If I hadn't taken your course on a whim as an undergraduate, I never would have gotten interested in paleontology at all, it's so far removed from my own field of EE."

"Yeah, I understand. Now that you're closing in on your Ph. D., you don't have any choice but to clear everything else aside. I know, I've been there. We'll still miss you a lot-and take it from a pro that your skills as a paleontologist are a lot more than those of a 'hobbyist.'"

"Thanks."

The gate to the Secord ranch leaped into view as the SUV crested the hill and charged down the other side. Helen expertly maneuvered the vehicle through the gateway and pulled up to the sprawling ranch house in a cloud of dust.

Joe got out, pausing to let his legs steady, and possibly to give himself an excuse to watch Helen going first. As he was a several-year veteran, she ignored the matter. She was used to the fact that she got a lot of stares; in what was still a male-dominated profession, just about any woman got them. And in her case, a woman whose figure was still very good for someone close to forty years old. For a miracle, even, her face wasn't showing the wrinkles you'd expect from years of wind and sun in rugged country.

The door to the ranch house opened. "Welcome back, Dr. Sutter!"

Jackie Secord stepped aside and ushered them in with a wave of her hand. Combined with Jackie's striking appearance, the gesture had a dramatic flair to it that was absurdly out of keeping with its humble purpose.

But that was pretty typical of the young woman. She was Indian in her ancestry, on her mother's side. Her good-looking but intense face, black hair, black eyes and dusky complexion sometimes reminded Helen of a cartoon version of a Foreign Spy. Natasha, with a rural Montana accent.

To make the absurdity perfect, Jackie was a graduate student in engineering-and shared with Joe a fascination with space exploration. Her looks and liking for dramatic gestures aside, the young woman was about as down-home American as anyone could get.

Despite her intentions to become an astronaut, Jackie shared Joe's longstanding side interest in paleontology. That interest, as with Joe's, had been triggered years before by Helen herself-but not as a student. The first time Helen had showed up in the area, she'd introduced herself to the Secord family since they were one of the largest landowners around and she needed their permission to conduct digs on their property.

Their daughter Jackie-then eighteen years old and a high school senior-had promptly attached herself to Helen as a combination guide and gofer. Since then, Jackie had become one of Helen's main local contacts and a constant, helpful presence at the digs. She'd developed into a top-notch amateur paleontologist, in fact, and usually tried to spend at least part of her summers on one of Helen's digs.

"What's with the 'Dr. Sutter' business, Jackie? It's been 'Helen' for years, remember?"

Jackie grinned. "I figure I gotta practice up on my formalities. I'm not all that far behind Joe when it comes to getting my doctorate-and God help me if I start breezily referring to the head of my committee as 'Frank.' So what's up for this year?"

"Same as ever," Joe said, coming in after Helen. "Spend a couple months working ourselves to death to dig out a few fossils just like the ones everyone else has. Write some papers about them that no one but us and the reviewers will read. Then Helen and company write another grant proposal."

"And Joey's still the optimist, I see."

Joe winced. He detested being called "Joey," Helen knew. But some years before, when they'd both been undergraduates, Jackie and Joe had been casually "sorta-dating" for one summer. Her pet nickname for him had probably seemed cute then. Now, of course, it was inescapable, though he wouldn't put up with anyone else using it.

Laughing, Helen nodded. "As always. Seriously, I thought we might try that area a bit north of the last dig. The indications we had seem to show that some of the random fossils come from that area in the runoff."

"You stop by Jeff's?" Helen wasn't sure, but Jackie's gaze seemed somewhat more intense than usual.

Jeff Little owned a souvenir shop in the nearest town, and specialized in buying and selling fossils from the local rock hounds and collectors. If a new group of fossils started showing up, he was generally the first to know.

"Yes, we did. He didn't seem to have much new, except one bone that might-might-have come from a dromeasaur or related species."

There was no mistaking the gleam in Jackie's eyes now. "Well, Jeff doesn't get all the good stuff. After the time I've spent working with you, I can spot the real winners out in the field if I run across them. Most of that stuff he gets is junk."

"Sure, you showed me your better pieces last year, too. Saves us having to bargain with Little for them."

"I've got something really nifty this year, I think. Came down in the year's runoff, and I think I've got a good idea where it came from. Be right back." Jackie trotted upstairs to fetch her prize.

Jackie's mother had come in from the kitchen by then. "Would you like some lemonade?" she asked, then gestured at the couches and armchairs scattered about the sprawling ranch-style living room. "And why don't you two sit down a spell before you go out there to start your digging?"

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